By Jimmy Durkin
Don Lippi is part coach, part master motivator.
The St. Joseph Notre Dame High boys basketball coach understood how much talented graduated from the 2010-11 team that won the California Interscholastic Federation Division V state title, but he refused to allowed that to be an excuse to not succeed this season.
"If I'm at a job, I want somebody to expect me to do really good work," Lippi said. "My principal expects me to be a great teacher in the classroom. I expect my players to do great work on the court."
Lippi transferred that mindset to his players, telling them they would be better than the previous season's state title squad. Never mind that the team lost three four-year starters, including 2011 Cal-Hi Sports Division V player of the year Brendan Keane -- a 6-foot-10 center now at Northern Colorado.
The Pilots responded by making a return trip to the Division V state championship game, ultimately falling to Village Christian-Sun Valley 62-51.
For that work, Lippi has been named the Bay Area News Group East Bay Boys Basketball Coach of the Year.
The team bought in and began to believe when it saw the results on the court. The biggest proof may have come during one of the team's six losses -- a 63-60 home defeat to eventual Division IV state champion Salesian. The Pilots had a four-point lead in the fourth quarter and had a chance to take the lead down the stretch before the Pride prevailed.
Salesian coach Bill Mellis told Lippi after that game that he expected to see the Pilots return to Sacramento for another trip to the state finals.
"When I said that to him after our game, he was like 'Eh, I'm no so sure,' " Mellis said. "When they made it, I told him, 'I told you so.' "
St. Joseph returned to the state championship game by winning its record eighth NorCal championship, breaking a tie with former longtime rival Bishop O'Dowd. In the process, the 33-year coaching veteran picked up his 700th career victory in a Northern Regional semifinal victory over Central Catholic-Modesto.
Sophomore center Temidayo Yussef, who mostly watched from the bench during his freshman year on varsity, blossomed into a dominating post presence, while senior guards Gemeny Givens and Nick Lacy provided necessary leadership as the only returning players who saw significant court time.
"This team achieved more than a lot of people thought we could achieve," Lippi said. "But I've seen kids do some amazing things in my long career and these kids did some amazing things. The beautiful thing is they were all pulling together down the stretch."
Lippi has achieved success while garnering respect from his players and opponent alike.
"I have about as much respect as you can have for a coach and I do for Coach Lippi," Mellis said. "He has taught me a lot over the years. I've turned to him a couple times for advice."